Amistad (1841)

Amistad (1841)

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The Amistad, also known as United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 518 (1841), was a United States Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 case resulting from the rebellion of slaves
Slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 on board the Spanish schooner
Schooner
A schooner is a type of sailing vessel characterized by the use of fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts with the forward mast being no taller than the rear masts....

 Amistad
La Amistad
La Amistad was a ship notable as the scene of a revolt by African captives being transported from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba. It was a 19th-century two-masted schooner built in Spain and owned by a Spaniard living in Cuba...

in 1839. It was an unusual "freedom suit", as it involved international issues and parties, as well as United States law.

The rebellion broke out when the schooner, traveling along the coast of Cuba
Cuba
The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

, was taken over by a group of captives who had earlier been kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery. The Africans were later apprehended on the vessel near Long Island, New York, by the United States Revenue Cutter Service
United States Revenue Cutter Service
The United States Revenue Cutter Service was established by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1790 as an armed maritime law enforcement service. Throughout its entire existence the Revenue Cutter Service operated under the authority of the United States Department of the Treasury...

 and taken into custody. The ensuing, widely publicized court cases in the United States helped the abolitionist movement.

In 1840, a federal trial court found that the initial transport of the Africans across the Atlantic (which did not involve the Amistad) had been illegal, because the international slave trade had been abolished, and the captives were thus not legally slaves but free. Given that they were illegally confined, the Africans were entitled to take whatever legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force. After the US Supreme Court affirmed this finding on March 9, 1841, supporters arranged transportation for the Africans back to Africa in 1842. The case influenced numerous succeeding laws in the United States.

Rebellion at sea, and capture


On June 27, 1839, La Amistad
La Amistad
La Amistad was a ship notable as the scene of a revolt by African captives being transported from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba. It was a 19th-century two-masted schooner built in Spain and owned by a Spaniard living in Cuba...

(“Friendship”), a Spanish vessel, departed from the port of Havana
Havana
Havana is the capital city, province, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city proper has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, and it spans a total of — making it the largest city in the Caribbean region, and the most populous...

, Cuba (then a Spanish colony), for Puerto Principe, also in Cuba. The masters of La Amistad were the captain, Ramón Ferrer, José Ruiz, and Pedro Montez, all of Spanish origin. With Ferrer was his personal slave Antonio. Ruiz was transporting 49 African slaves, entrusted to him by the Governor-General of Cuba. Montez held four additional African slaves, also entrusted to him by the Governor-General of Cuba. Normally a four-day voyage, the crew only brought four days’ worth of rations, not anticipating a strong headwind to slow the schooner. On July 2, 1839, one of the Africans, Cinqué
Joseph Cinqué
Sengbe Pieh , later known as Joseph Cinqué, was a West African man of the Mende people and was the most prominent defendant in the Amistad case, in which it was found that he and 51 others had been victims of the illegal Atlantic slave trade.-Biography:Cinqué was born c...

, who had learned metalworking, managed to free himself and the other captives using an iron file. It had been found and kept by a woman on the Tecora (the ship that had transported them illegally as slaves from Africa to Cuba).

The Mende
Mende people
The Mende people are one of the two largest and most dominant ethnic group in Sierra Leone, along with the Temne. The Mende make up 30% of Sierra Leone's total population or 1,932,015 members...

 Africans killed the ship's cook, Celestino, who had told them that they were to be killed and eaten by their captors. The slaves also killed the vessel's captain in a struggle in which two of the rebelling slaves were killed. Two sailors escaped in a lifeboat. The slaves spared the lives of the two crew members who could navigate the ship, José Ruiz
José Ruiz
José "Cheíto" Ruíz Matos was a Puerto Rican boxer. Born and raised in the municipality of Trujillo Alto, he was signed as a professional when he was 17 years old. Ruíz made his debut July 13, 1984, competing in the super flyweight division...

 and Pedro Montez, upon the condition that they would return the ship to Africa. They also spared the captain's personal slave, Antonio, using him as an interpreter between themselves and Ruiz and Montez.

The crew deceived the Africans and steered the Amistad north along the coast of the United States, where the ship was sighted repeatedly. They dropped anchor half a mile off eastern Long Island
Long Island
Long Island is an island located in the southeast part of the U.S. state of New York, just east of Manhattan. Stretching northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island contains four counties, two of which are boroughs of New York City , and two of which are mainly suburban...

, New York, on August 26, 1839, at Culloden Point
Culloden Point
Culloden Point is a small peninsula north of Montauk, New York that marks the east side entrance to Fort Pond Bay from Long Island Sound.-HMS Culloden:The British ship HMS Culloden ran aground here in 1781 while pursuing a French frigate...

. Some of the Africans went on shore to procure water and provisions from the hamlet of Montauk
Montauk, New York
Montauk [ˈmɒntɒk] is a census-designated place that roughly corresponds to the hamlet with the same name located in the town of East Hampton in Suffolk County, New York, United States on the South Shore of Long Island. As of the United States 2000 Census, the CDP population was 3,851 as of 2000...

. The vessel was discovered by the United States Revenue Cutter USRC Washington. Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, commanding the cutter, saw some of the slaves on shore and, assisted by his officers and crew, took custody of the Amistad and the rebel slaves. He took them to the state of Connecticut
Connecticut
Connecticut is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It is bordered by Rhode Island to the east, Massachusetts to the north, and the state of New York to the west and the south .Connecticut is named for the Connecticut River, the major U.S. river that approximately...

 and presented a written claim under admiralty law
Admiralty law
Admiralty law is a distinct body of law which governs maritime questions and offenses. It is a body of both domestic law governing maritime activities, and private international law governing the relationships between private entities which operate vessels on the oceans...

 for salvage of the vessel, the cargo, and the Africans. Gedney allegedly chose to land in Connecticut
Connecticut
Connecticut is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It is bordered by Rhode Island to the east, Massachusetts to the north, and the state of New York to the west and the south .Connecticut is named for the Connecticut River, the major U.S. river that approximately...

 because slavery was still technically legal there, unlike in New York. He hoped to profit from sale of the slaves. Gedney transferred all captured slaves into the custody of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut
United States District Court for the District of Connecticut
The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut is the Federal district court whose jurisdiction is the state of Connecticut. The court has offices in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven. Appeals from the court are heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit...

, at which time legal proceedings began.

Parties

  • Lieutenant Gedney filed a libel (a lawsuit
    Lawsuit
    A lawsuit or "suit in law" is a civil action brought in a court of law in which a plaintiff, a party who claims to have incurred loss as a result of a defendant's actions, demands a legal or equitable remedy. The defendant is required to respond to the plaintiff's complaint...

     in admiralty law) for the captives and cargo on board La Amistad as property seized on the high seas.
  • Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham filed a libel for salvage, claiming that they had been the first to discover La Amistad.
  • Ruiz and Montez filed libels requesting that their slaves and cargo be returned to them.
  • The Office of the United States Attorney for the Connecticut District
    United States District Court for the District of Connecticut
    The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut is the Federal district court whose jurisdiction is the state of Connecticut. The court has offices in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven. Appeals from the court are heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit...

    , representing the Spanish Government, libelled that the slaves, cargo, and vessel be returned to Spain as its property.
  • Antonio Vega: vice-consul of Spain libelled for "the slave Antonio," on the grounds that this man was his property.
  • The Africans denied that they were slaves or property, or that the court could return them to the control of the government of Spain.
  • José Antonio Tellincas, with Aspe and Laca, claimed goods on board La Amistad.

British pressure


The British had entered into a treaty with Spain eliminating the slave trade south of the equator and saw it as a matter of International Law that the United States release the Africans. They applied diplomatic pressure to achieve this including invoking their own treaty with the United States.

While the legal battle continued, Irishman Dr. Richard R. Madden
Richard Robert Madden
Richard Robert Madden was an Irish doctor, writer, abolitionist and historian of the United Irishmen....

 "who served on behalf of the British commission to suppress the African slave trade in Havana" arrived to testify. He made a deposition "that some twenty-five thousand slaves were brought into Cuba every year – with the wrongful compliance of, and personal profit by, Spanish officials" Madden also "told the court that his examinations revealed that the defendants were brought directly from Africa and could not have been residents of Cuba" Madden (who would later have an audience with Queen Victoria concerning the case) conferred with the British Minister in Washington, D.C., Henry Stephen Fox
Henry Stephen Fox
Henry Stephen Fox was a British diplomat.-Life:As the only son of General Henry Edward Fox , Henry was educated at Eton College. Matriculating from Christ Church, Oxford in 1809, his wit, charm, love of gambling and manners made him popular in fashionable circles...

 who began pressuring U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth on behalf "of her Majesty's Government"

Fox wrote "...Great Britain is also bound to remember that the law of Spain, which finally prohibited the slave-trade throughout the Spanish dominions, from the date of the 30th of May, 1820, the provisions of which law are contained in the King of Spain's royal cedula of the 19th December, was passed, in compliance with a treaty obligation to that effect, by which the Crown of Spain had bound itself to the Crown of Great Britain, and for which a valuable compensation, in return, was given by Great Britain to Spain; as may be seen by reference to the 2d, 3d, and 4th articles of a public treaty concluded between great Britain and Spain on the 23d of September, 1817.

"It is next to be observed, that Great Britain and the United States have mutually engaged themselves to each other, by the 10th article of the treaty of Ghent
Treaty of Ghent
The Treaty of Ghent , signed on 24 December 1814, in Ghent , was the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812 between the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland...

, to use their best endeavors for the entire abolition of the African slave-trade; and there can be no doubt of the firm intention of both parties religiously to fulfill the terms of that engagement.

"Now, the unfortunate Africans whose case is the subject of the present representation, have been thrown by accidental circumstances into the hands of the authorities of the United States Government whether these persons shall recover the freedom to which they are entitled, or whether they shall be reduced to slavery, in violation of known laws and contracts publicly passed, prohibiting the continuance of the African slave-trade by Spanish subjects.

"It is under these circumstance that her Majesty's Government anxiously hope that the President of the United States will find himself empowered to take such measures, in behalf of the aforesaid Africans, as shall secure to them the possession of their liberty, to which, without doubt they are by law entitled."

Forsyth responded that under the U.S. Constitution it was not in the President's powers to affect the case. Forsyth went further saying that the question of whether the "negroes of the Amistad" where enslaved in violation of the Treaty was still an open one "and this Government would with great reluctance erect itself into a tribunal to investigate such questions between two friendly sovereigns." If such facts could be determined "they cannot be without their force and effect in the proper time and place." If they were not determined before the end of the trial and the Court finds for Spain "it is the intention of the Spanish minister to restore these negroes...to the island of Cuba...It is there that questions arising under the Spanish laws, and the treaties of Spain with Great Britain, may be appropriately discussed and decided; and where a full opportunity will be presented to the Government of her Majesty, the Queen of Great Britain, to appeal to the treaty stipulations applicable to the subject of your letter."

Spanish argument


Secretary of State Forsyth requested from the Spanish Minister, Chevalier de Argaiz, "a copy of the laws now in force in the island of Cuba relative to slavery." In response the Captain General of Cuba sent Argaiz "everything on the subject, which had been determined since the treaty concluded in 1818 between Spain and England".

Included was a statement of the Minister's dismay that despite the early American assurances that the men aboard the Amistad would be returned to Spanish control, Spain was astonished with "a resolution so contrary to the hopes which had been excited".

The Spanish maintained that none but a Spanish court could have jurisdiction over the case. The Spanish minister stated "I do not, in fact, understand how a foreign court of justice can be considered competent to take cognizance of an offence committed on board of a Spanish vessel, by Spanish subjects, and against Spanish subjects, in the waters of a Spanish territory; for it was committed on the coasts of this island, and under the flag of this nation." The Minister pointed out that only recently the Spanish had turned over American sailors "belonging to the crew of the American vessel William Engs", that it had tried by request of their captain and the American consul. The sailors were found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to "four years' confinement in a fortress." Other American sailors protested this and when the American ambassador raised the issue with the Spaniards, on March 20, 1839 "her Majesty, having taken into consideration all the circumstances, decided that the said seaman should be placed at the disposition of the American consul, seeing that the offence was committed in one of the vessels and under the flag of his nation, and not on shore." The Spaniards held that if America demanded that these sailors in an American ship be turned over to them, despite being in a Spanish port, how can they now try the Spanish mutineers?

The Spaniards held that just as America had ended its importation of African slaves but maintained a legal domestic population, so too did Cuba. Therefore it was the right of the Spanish courts to determine "whether the Negroes in question" were legal or illegal slaves under Spanish law, "but never can this right justly belong to a foreign country."

The Spaniards further maintained that even if one assumes that the Africans were being held as slaves in violation of "the celebrated treaty of humanity concluded between Spain and Great Britain in 1835", that this would be a violation of "the laws of Spain; and the Spanish Government, being as scrupulous as any other in maintaining the strict observance of the prohibitions imposed on, or the liberties allowed to, its subjects by itself, will severely chastise those of them who fail in their duties."

The Spaniards pointed out that by American law that the jurisdiction over a "vessel on the high seas, in time of peace, engaged in a lawful voyage, is, according to the laws of nations, under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State to which her flag belongs; as much so as if constituting a part of its own domain. ...if such ship or vessel should be forced, by stress of weather, or other unavoidable cause, into the port and under the jurisdiction of friendly Power, she, and her cargo, and persons on board, with their property, and all the rights belonging to their personal relations as established by the laws of the State to which they belong, would be placed under the protection which the laws of nations extend to the unfortunate under such circumstances." The Spaniards demanded that the U.S. "apply these proper principles to the case of the schooner Amistad."

The Spanish were further encouraged that their view would win out when U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun
John Caldwell Calhoun was a leading politician and political theorist from South Carolina during the first half of the 19th century. Calhoun eloquently spoke out on every issue of his day, but often changed positions. Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent...

 and the Senate's Committee of Foreign Relations on April 15, 1840 issued a statement announcing complete "conformity between the views entertained by the Senate, and the arguments urged by the [Spanish Minister] Chevalier de Argaiz" concerning the Amistad.

Applicable law


The Spanish were careful to distinguish the Africans as property so their fate would fall under the Treaty of 1795. They went so far as to protest when Judge William Jay
William Jay (jurist)
William Jay was an American reformer and jurist, the son of John Jay .-Biography:He was born in New York City, graduated at Yale in 1808, and then studied law at Albany, though poor eyesight soon compelled him to give up the profession...

 construed a statement by their Minister as seeming to demand "the surrender of the negroes apprehended on board the schooner Amistad, as murderers, and not as property; that is to say founding his demand on the law of nations, and not on the treaty of 1795."

The Spanish pointed out that the statement Jay was referring to was one were the Spanish minister was "speaking of the crime committed by the negroes [slave revolt], and the punishment which they merit". They went on to point out that the Minister had stated that a payment to compensate the owners "would be a slender compensation; for though the property should remain, as it ought to remain, unimpaired, public vengeance would be frustrated".

Jay also took issue that the Minister had requested the Africans be turned over to Spanish authorities (which seemed to imply that they were fugitives instead of misbehaving property), because the 1795 treaty said that property should be restored to directly to the control of its owners. The Spanish denied that this meant that the Minister had waived the contention that they were property.

By insisting that the case was under the Treaty of 1795 the Spanish were invoking the Supremacy Clause
Supremacy Clause
Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, known as the Supremacy Clause, establishes the U.S. Constitution, U.S. Treaties, and Federal Statutes as "the supreme law of the land." The text decrees these to be the highest form of law in the U.S...

 of the U.S. Constitution which would put the clauses of the treaty above the state laws of Connecticut or New York where the ship had been taken into custody, "no one who respects the laws of the country ought to oppose the execution of the treaty, which is the supreme law of the country."

The Spanish also sought to avoid talk about the Law of Nations as some of their opponents argued that America had a duty under the Law of Nations to treat the Africans with the same deference they would treat any other foreign sailors. This is precisely what John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States . He served as an American diplomat, Senator, and Congressional representative. He was a member of the Federalist, Democratic-Republican, National Republican, and later Anti-Masonic and Whig parties. Adams was the son of former...

 argued, saying "The Africans were in possession, and had the presumptive right of ownership; they were in peace with the United States:...they were not pirates; they were on a voyage to their native homes...the ship was theirs, and being in immediate communication with the shore, was in the territory of the State of New York; or, if not, at least half the number were actually on the soil of New York, and entitled to all the provisions of the law of nations, and the protection and comfort which the laws of that State secure to every human being within its limits."

Still, when pressed with questions concerning the Law of Nations the Spanish did maintain that an idea of Hugo Grotius
Hugo Grotius
Hugo Grotius , also known as Huig de Groot, Hugo Grocio or Hugo de Groot, was a jurist in the Dutch Republic. With Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili he laid the foundations for international law, based on natural law...

 (hailed as one of the originators of the Law of Nations) applied in this case. That "the usage, then, of demanding fugitives from a foreign Government, is confined...to crimes which affect the Government and such as are of extreme atrocity."

Lower court proceedings


A case before the Circuit Court
United States circuit court
The United States circuit courts were the original intermediate level courts of the United States federal court system. They were established by the Judiciary Act of 1789. They had trial court jurisdiction over civil suits of diversity jurisdiction and major federal crimes. They also had appellate...

 in Hartford
Hartford, Connecticut
Hartford is the capital of the U.S. state of Connecticut. The seat of Hartford County until Connecticut disbanded county government in 1960, it is the second most populous city on New England's largest river, the Connecticut River. As of the 2010 Census, Hartford's population was 124,775, making...

, Connecticut, was filed in September 1839, alleging mutiny
Mutiny
Mutiny is a conspiracy among members of a group of similarly situated individuals to openly oppose, change or overthrow an authority to which they are subject...

 and murder. The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction
Jurisdiction
Jurisdiction is the practical authority granted to a formally constituted legal body or to a political leader to deal with and make pronouncements on legal matters and, by implication, to administer justice within a defined area of responsibility...

, because the alleged acts took place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters.

Various parties then filed property claims to many of the captives, to the ship, and to its cargo before the lower District Court
United States district court
The United States district courts are the general trial courts of the United States federal court system. Both civil and criminal cases are filed in the district court, which is a court of law, equity, and admiralty. There is a United States bankruptcy court associated with each United States...

: Ruiz and Montez, Lieutenant Gedney, and Captain Henry Green (who had met the Africans while on shore on Long Island and claimed to have helped in their capture). The Spanish government asked that the ship, cargo and slaves be restored to Spain under the Pinckney treaty of 1795 between Spain and the United States. Article 9 of this treaty holds that "all ships and merchandises of what nature soever, which shall be rescued out of the hands of pirates or robbers on the high seas, …shall be restored, entire, to the true proprietor." The United States filed this claim on behalf of Spain.

The abolitionist movement
Abolitionism
Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...

 had formed the "Amistad Committee", headed by New York City merchant Lewis Tappan
Lewis Tappan
Lewis Tappan was a New York abolitionist who worked to achieve the freedom of the illegally enslaved Africans of the Amistad. Contacted by Connecticut abolitionists soon after the Amistad arrived in port, Tappan focused extensively on the captive Africans...

, and had collected money to mount a defense of the Africans. Initially, communication with the Africans was difficult, since they spoke neither English nor Spanish. Professor J. Willard Gibbs, Sr.
Willard Gibbs (linguist)
Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr. was a professor of theology and sacred literature at Yale University.He was born in Salem, Massachusetts and graduated from Yale in 1809. He was a tutor at the college from 1811 to 1815, when he removed to Andover, studying Hebrew and biblical literature...

 learned to count to ten in the Mende language
Mende language
Mende is a major language of Sierra Leone, with some speakers in neighboring Liberia. It is spoken by the Mende people and by other ethnic groups as a regional lingua franca in southern Sierra Leone....

, went to the harbor of New York City, and counted aloud in front of sailors until he located a person able to understand and translate. That person was James Covey
James Covey
James Covey was the interpreter used in the Amistad slave ship case who spoke Mende and possibly other African languages....

, a twenty-year-old sailor of the British man-of-war . Covey was himself a former slave from West Africa.

The abolitionists filed charges of assault, kidnapping
Kidnapping
In criminal law, kidnapping is the taking away or transportation of a person against that person's will, usually to hold the person in false imprisonment, a confinement without legal authority...

, and false imprisonment
False imprisonment
False imprisonment is a restraint of a person in a bounded area without justification or consent. False imprisonment is a common-law felony and a tort. It applies to private as well as governmental detention...

 against Ruiz and Montez. Their arrest in New York City in October 1839 outraged pro-slavery rights advocates and the Spanish government. Montes immediately posted bail and went to Cuba, while Ruiz "more comfortable in a New England setting (and entitled to many amneities not available to the Africans), hoped to garner further public support by staying in jail....Ruiz, however, soon tired of his martyred lifestyle in jail and posted bond. Like Montes, he returned to Cuba". Outraged, Spanish minister Cavallero Pedro Alcantara Argaiz made "caustic accusations against America's judicial system and continued to condemn the abolitionist affront. Ruiz's imprisonment only added to Argaiz's anger, and he pressured Forsyth to seek ways to throw out the case altogether." The Spanish also held that the bailbonds that the men had to acquire (so that they could leave jail and return to Cuba) caused them a grave financial burden, and "by the treaty of 1795, no obstacle or impediment [to leave the U.S.] should have [been] placed" in their way.

On January 7, 1840, all the parties (except for Ruiz and Montez, who were represented by the Spanish minister) appeared before the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut
United States District Court for the District of Connecticut
The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut is the Federal district court whose jurisdiction is the state of Connecticut. The court has offices in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven. Appeals from the court are heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit...

 and presented their arguments.

The abolitionists' main argument before the District Court was that a treaty between Britain and Spain of 1817 and a subsequent pronouncement by the Spanish government had outlawed the slave trade across the Atlantic. It was established that the slaves had been captured in Mendiland
Mendiland
Mendiland is the extreme southwest portion of Sierra Leone on the western coast of Africa, where the Mende tribe lives and the Mende language is spoken....

 (also spelled Mendeland, current Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone , officially the Republic of Sierra Leone, is a country in West Africa. It is bordered by Guinea to the north and east, Liberia to the southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west and southwest. Sierra Leone covers a total area of and has an estimated population between 5.4 and 6.4...

) in Africa, sold to a Portuguese trader in Lomboko
Lomboko
Lomboko refers to a slave factory; a fortress stockade created by the infamous Spanish slave trader Pedro Blanco. It consisted of several large holding depots or barracoons for slaves brought from the interior, as well as several palatial buildings for Blanco's use, to hold his wives and...

 (south of Freetown
Freetown
Freetown is the capital and largest city of Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa. It is a major port city on the Atlantic Ocean located in the Western Area of the country, and had a city proper population of 772,873 at the 2004 census. The city is the economic, financial, and cultural center of...

) in April 1839, and taken to Havana
Havana
Havana is the capital city, province, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city proper has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, and it spans a total of — making it the largest city in the Caribbean region, and the most populous...

 illegally on a Portuguese ship. The Africans were therefore not slaves, but victims of illegal kidnapping and free to go. Their papers wrongly identified them as slaves who had been in Cuba since before 1820, a common practice in Cuba condoned by government officials.

U.S. President Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States . Before his presidency, he was the eighth Vice President and the tenth Secretary of State, under Andrew Jackson ....

, who did not have strong opinions on the slavery question but was concerned about relations with Spain and about his re-election prospects in the southern states, sided with the Spanish position; he ordered a U.S. schooner to New Haven Harbor
New Haven Harbor
New Haven Harbor is an inlet on the north side of Long Island Sound in the state of Connecticut in the United States. The harbor area is an inlet carved by the retreat of the glaciers during the last ice age approximately 13,000 years ago....

 to return the Africans to Cuba immediately after a favorable decision, before any appeals could be decided.

The District Court, however, agreed with the abolitionists, ordering in January 1840 that the Amistad and its cargo be given to Lieutenant Gedney; and the Africans be returned to their homeland by the U.S. government. (The federal government had outlawed the slave trade between the U.S. and other countries in 1808, and a law from 1818, amended in 1819, provided for the return of all illegally traded slaves.) The captain's slave Antonio was declared the rightful property of the captain's heirs and was ordered restored to Cuba (some sources say he willingly returned to Cuba, while other sources claim that he escaped to New York, or to Canada, with the help of an abolitionist group).

In detail, the District Court ruled as follows:
  • It rejected the claim of the U.S. Attorney, argued on behalf of the Spanish minister, for the restoration of the slaves.
  • It dismissed the claims of Ruiz and Montez.
  • It ordered that the captives be delivered to the custody of the President of the United States for transportation to Africa, since they were, in fact, legally free.
  • It allowed the Spanish vice-consul to claim the slave Antonio.
  • It allowed Lt. Gedney to claim one-third of the property on board La Amistad.
  • It allowed Tellincas, Aspe, and Laca to claim one-third of the property.
  • It dismissed the claims of Green and Fordham for salvage.


The U.S. Attorney
United States Attorney
United States Attorneys represent the United States federal government in United States district court and United States court of appeals. There are 93 U.S. Attorneys stationed throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands...

 for the District of Connecticut, on order of Van Buren, immediately appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Connecticut District. He challenged every part of the District Court's ruling except the concession of the slave Antonio to the Spanish vice-consul. Tellincas, Aspe, and Laca also appealed the denial of their salvage. Ruiz and Montez, as well as the owners of La Amistad, did not appeal.

This court affirmed (upheld) the District Court's decision in April 1840. From there, the U.S. Attorney appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Arguments before the Supreme Court


On February 23, 1841, Attorney General
United States Attorney General
The United States Attorney General is the head of the United States Department of Justice concerned with legal affairs and is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government. The attorney general is considered to be the chief lawyer of the U.S. government...

 Henry D. Gilpin
Henry D. Gilpin
Henry Dilworth Gilpin was an American lawyer and statesman of Quaker extraction who served as Attorney General of the United States....

 began the oral argument phase before the Supreme Court. Gilpin first entered into evidence the papers of La Amistad which stated that the Africans were Spanish property. The documents being in order, Gilpin argued that the Court had no authority to rule against their validity. Gilpin contended that if the Africans were slaves (as evidenced by the documents), then they must be returned to their rightful owner, in this case, the Spanish government. Gilpin's argument lasted two hours.

John Quincy Adams, former President of the United States and at that time a U.S. Representative
United States House of Representatives
The United States House of Representatives is one of the two Houses of the United States Congress, the bicameral legislature which also includes the Senate.The composition and powers of the House are established in Article One of the Constitution...

 from Massachusetts
Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

, had agreed to argue for the Africans, but when it was time for him to argue, felt ill-prepared. Roger Sherman Baldwin
Roger Sherman Baldwin
Roger Sherman Baldwin was an American lawyer involved in the Amistad case, who later became the 17th Governor of Connecticut and a United States Senator.-Early life:...

, who had already represented the captives in the lower cases, opened in his place.

Baldwin, a prominent attorney (who was no relation to Justice Baldwin
Henry Baldwin (judge)
Henry Baldwin was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from January 18, 1830, to April 21, 1844.-Biography:...

, the lone dissenter on the Court) contended that the Spanish government was attempting to manipulate the Court to return "fugitives". In actuality, Baldwin argued, the Spanish government sought the return of slaves, who had been freed by the District Court, a fact that the Spanish government was not appealing. Covering all the facts of the case, Baldwin spoke for four hours over the course of the 22nd and the 23rd.

John Quincy Adams rose to speak on February 24. First, he reminded the court that it was a part of the judicial branch
Judiciary
The judiciary is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law in the name of the state. The judiciary also provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes...

, and not part of the executive. Adams introduced correspondence between the Spanish government and the Secretary of State
United States Secretary of State
The United States Secretary of State is the head of the United States Department of State, concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary is a member of the Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in line of succession and order of precedence...

, criticizing President Martin van Buren
Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States . Before his presidency, he was the eighth Vice President and the tenth Secretary of State, under Andrew Jackson ....

 for his assumption of unconstitutional
Constitutionality
Constitutionality is the condition of acting in accordance with an applicable constitution. Acts that are not in accordance with the rules laid down in the constitution are deemed to be ultra vires.-See also:*ultra vires*Company law*Constitutional law...

 powers in the case.
Adams argued that neither Pinckney's Treaty
Pinckney's Treaty
Pinckney's Treaty, also known as the Treaty of San Lorenzo or the Treaty of Madrid, was signed in San Lorenzo de El Escorial on October 27, 1795 and established intentions of friendship between the United States and Spain. It also defined the boundaries of the United States with the Spanish...

 nor the Adams-Onís Treaty
Adams-Onís Treaty
The Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819, also known as the Transcontinental Treaty or the Purchase of Florida, was a treaty between the United States and Spain in 1819 that gave Florida to the U.S. and set out a boundary between the U.S. and New Spain . It settled a standing border dispute between the two...

 were applicable to the case. Article IX of Pinckney's Treaty referred only to property, and did not apply to people. As to The Antelope decision (10 Wheat. 124), which recognized "that possession on board of a vessel was evidence of property", Adams said that did not apply either, since the precedent there was established prior to the prohibition of the foreign slave trade in the United States. Adams concluded after eight and one-half hours of speaking on March 1 (the Court had taken a recess following the death of Associate Justice
Associate Justice
Associate Justice or Associate Judge is the title for a member of a judicial panel who is not the Chief Justice in some jurisdictions. The title "Associate Justice" is used for members of the United States Supreme Court and some state supreme courts, and for some other courts in Commonwealth...

 Barbour
Philip Pendleton Barbour
Philip Pendleton Barbour was a U.S. Congressman from Virginia and an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was also the brother of Virginia governor and U.S. Secretary of War James Barbour as well as the first cousin of John S. Barbour and first cousin, once removed of John S...

).

Attorney General Gilpin concluded oral argument with a three-hour rebuttal on March 2. The Court retired to consider the case.

Decision of the Supreme Court


On March 9, Associate Justice Joseph Story
Joseph Story
Joseph Story was an American lawyer and jurist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1811 to 1845. He is most remembered today for his opinions in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee and The Amistad, along with his magisterial Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, first...

 delivered the Court's decision. Article IX of Pinckney's Treaty was ruled off topic since the Africans in question were never legal property. They were not criminals, as the U.S. Attorney's Office argued, but rather "unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board a certain vessel". The documents submitted by Attorney General Gilpin were not evidence of property, but rather of fraud on the part of the Spanish government. Lt. Gedney and the USS Washington were to be awarded salvage from the vessel for having performed "a highly meritorious and useful service to the proprietors of the ship and cargo".

When La Amistad came into Long Island, however, the Court believed it to be in the possession of the Africans on board, who had no intent to become slaves. Therefore, the Adams-Onís Treaty
Adams-Onís Treaty
The Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819, also known as the Transcontinental Treaty or the Purchase of Florida, was a treaty between the United States and Spain in 1819 that gave Florida to the U.S. and set out a boundary between the U.S. and New Spain . It settled a standing border dispute between the two...

 did not apply, and the President was not required to return the slaves to Africa.

After the trial



The Africans greeted the news of the Supreme Court's decision with joy. Abolitionist supporters took the survivors – 35 men and boys and three girls – to Farmington
Farmington, Connecticut
Farmington is a town located in Hartford County in the Farmington Valley area of central Connecticut in the United States. The population was 25,340 at the 2010 census. It is home to the world headquarters of several large corporations including Carrier Corporation, Otis Elevator Company, and Carvel...

, a village considered "Grand Central Station" on the Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists,...

. Then a child in Farmington, the author Charles Ledyard Norton wrote later about the arrival of the Africans:
The Amistad committee continued to instruct the Africans in English and Christianity and collected donations to pay for their return home. Along with several missionaries, the surviving 36 Africans sailed back to Africa early in 1842. A mission was erected in Mendiland
Mendiland
Mendiland is the extreme southwest portion of Sierra Leone on the western coast of Africa, where the Mende tribe lives and the Mende language is spoken....

. Numerous members of the Amistad committee later founded the American Missionary Association
American Missionary Association
The American Missionary Association was a Protestant-based abolitionist group founded on September 3, 1846 in Albany, New York. The main purpose of this organization was to abolish slavery, to educate African Americans, to promote racial equality, and to promote Christian values...

, an evangelical organization which continued to support the Mendi mission. Made up of black and white ministers from mostly Presbyterian and Congregational denominations, it was active in arguing for abolitionism and for education of blacks. After the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, it founded numerous schools and colleges for freedmen in the Southern U.S.

In the following years, the Spanish government continued to press the US for compensation. Several lawmakers from southern states introduced resolutions into the United States Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 to pay. These efforts were supported by presidents James K. Polk
James K. Polk
James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States . Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He later lived in and represented Tennessee. A Democrat, Polk served as the 17th Speaker of the House of Representatives and the 12th Governor of Tennessee...

 and James Buchanan
James Buchanan
James Buchanan, Jr. was the 15th President of the United States . He is the only president from Pennsylvania, the only president who remained a lifelong bachelor and the last to be born in the 18th century....

, but they all failed to gain passage.

Joseph Cinqué
Joseph Cinqué
Sengbe Pieh , later known as Joseph Cinqué, was a West African man of the Mende people and was the most prominent defendant in the Amistad case, in which it was found that he and 51 others had been victims of the illegal Atlantic slave trade.-Biography:Cinqué was born c...

 returned to Africa. One rumor held that he later went to Jamaica. Another account holds that he returned to the mission and re-embraced Christianity in his final years. Other rumors alleged that Cinqué became involved in slavery. Although some of the Africans associated with the Amistad probably did engage in the slave trade upon their return, recent historical research suggests that the allegations of Cinqué's involvement are false.

The United States dealt with another ship rebellion similar to the Amistad case in the Creole case
Creole case
The Creole case was the result of a slave rebellion in 1841 on board the Creole, a ship involved in the United States coastwise slave trade.-The revolt:...

 of 1841.

Legacy



Some of the laws related to the Amistad case were:
  • It had been illegal to import slaves into United States since 1808;
  • Slaves were legally recognized as property in Connecticut until 1848;
  • The United States had a treaty with Spain (Pinckney's Treaty of 1795) that stated if a vessel of either nation was forced to enter the other's ports, that ship would be released immediately;
  • Spain outlawed slavery in 1811;
  • Spanish law made it legal to keep slaves if they were born before 1820;
  • Ships and property found helpless at sea were subject to claims (salvage rights) made by those who rescued them.


Applicable as it was to the issues of slavery
Slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 and abolitionism
Abolitionism
Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...

, the Amistad case gained a measure of renown. A number of memorials and commemorations were instituted.
  • A statue of Cinqué was erected beside the City Hall building in New Haven, Connecticut
    New Haven, Connecticut
    New Haven is the second-largest city in Connecticut and the sixth-largest in New England. According to the 2010 Census, New Haven's population increased by 5.0% between 2000 and 2010, a rate higher than that of the State of Connecticut, and higher than that of the state's five largest cities, and...

    .
  • A version of the events described here was made into a movie called Amistad
    Amistad (1997 film)
    Amistad is a 1997 historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the true story of a mutiny in 1839 by newly captured African slaves that took place aboard the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba, the subsequent voyage to the Northeastern United States and the legal battle that...

    in 1997. It was directed by Steven Spielberg
    Steven Spielberg
    Steven Allan Spielberg KBE is an American film director, screenwriter, producer, video game designer, and studio entrepreneur. In a career of more than four decades, Spielberg's films have covered many themes and genres. Spielberg's early science-fiction and adventure films were seen as an...

     and starred Anthony Hopkins
    Anthony Hopkins
    Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins, KBE , best known as Anthony Hopkins, is a Welsh actor of film, stage and television...

     as John Quincy Adams, Morgan Freeman
    Morgan Freeman
    Morgan Freeman is an American actor, film director, aviator and narrator. He is noted for his reserved demeanor and authoritative speaking voice. Freeman has received Academy Award nominations for his performances in Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption and Invictus and won...

     as one of the abolitionists, Djimon Hounsou
    Djimon Hounsou
    Djimon Diaw Hounsou is a Beninese actor and model. As an actor, Hounsou has been nominated for two Academy Awards.-Early life:Djimon Hounsou was born in Cotonou, Benin, in 1964, to lbertine and Pierre Hounsou, a cook. He emigrated to Lyon in France at the age of thirteen with his brother, Edmond....

     as Cinqué, and Matthew McConaughey
    Matthew McConaughey
    Matthew David McConaughey is an American actor.After a series of minor roles in the early 1990s, McConaughey gained notice for his breakout role in Dazed and Confused . He then appeared in films such as A Time to Kill, Contact, U-571, Tiptoes, Sahara, and We Are Marshall...

     as Roger Sherman Baldwin
    Roger Sherman Baldwin
    Roger Sherman Baldwin was an American lawyer involved in the Amistad case, who later became the 17th Governor of Connecticut and a United States Senator.-Early life:...

    , their lawyer. This film also depicts the initial transport of the slaves from Africa to Cuba, showing the brutality of treatment.
  • In March 2000, a replica
    Ship replica
    A ship replica is a reconstruction of a no longer existing ship. Replicas can range from authentically reconstructed, fully seaworthy ships, to ships of modern construction that give an impression of an historic vessel...

     of the Amistad was launched from Mystic Seaport
    Mystic Seaport
    Mystic Seaport, the Museum of America and the Sea, in Mystic, Connecticut, is notable both for its collection of sailing ships and boats, and for the re-creation of crafts and fabric of an entire 19th century seafaring village...

     in Mystic, Connecticut
    Mystic, Connecticut
    Mystic is a village and census-designated place in New London County, Connecticut, in the United States. The population was 4,001 at the 2000 census. A historic locality, Mystic has no independent government because it is not a legally recognized municipality in the state of Connecticut...

    . Its mission is to educate the public on the history of slavery
    Slavery
    Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

    , discrimination and civil rights
    Civil rights
    Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals' freedom from unwarranted infringement by governments and private organizations, and ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression.Civil rights include...

    . The vessel's current home port is New Haven, Connecticut
    New Haven, Connecticut
    New Haven is the second-largest city in Connecticut and the sixth-largest in New England. According to the 2010 Census, New Haven's population increased by 5.0% between 2000 and 2010, a rate higher than that of the State of Connecticut, and higher than that of the state's five largest cities, and...

    , where the Amistad Trial took place. The ship also travels to port cities for educational opportunities. The official name of the vessel is the Freedom Schooner Amistad.
  • The Connecticut Historical Society of Hartford, Connecticut, offers a multi-media exhibit recreating portions of the Amistad story, from its beginning in the Mendi villages of West Africa, to the return of 35 captives years later. School programs are offered.
  • The Historical Society of Farmington, Connecticut, offers walking tours of village houses that housed the Africans while funds were collected for their return home, as well as the gravestone of Foone, who drowned in the Farmington River.
  • Similarly, the Oberlin Heritage Center (Oberlin, Ohio
    Oberlin, Ohio
    Oberlin is a city in Lorain County, Ohio, United States, to the south and west of Cleveland. Oberlin is perhaps best known for being the home of Oberlin College, a liberal arts college and music conservatory with approximately 3,000 students...

    ) provides tours of the one-room schoolhouse where Sarah Margru Kinson, one of the Amistad captives, studied beginning in August 1846, at the suggestion of abolitionist Lewis Tappan
    Lewis Tappan
    Lewis Tappan was a New York abolitionist who worked to achieve the freedom of the illegally enslaved Africans of the Amistad. Contacted by Connecticut abolitionists soon after the Amistad arrived in port, Tappan focused extensively on the captive Africans...

    .

See also

  • Abolitionism
    Abolitionism
    Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...

  • La Amistad
    La Amistad
    La Amistad was a ship notable as the scene of a revolt by African captives being transported from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba. It was a 19th-century two-masted schooner built in Spain and owned by a Spaniard living in Cuba...

  • Amistad (film)
  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 40

External links